The country is busy celebrating Shakespeare this week. Yes, he’s the greatest writer in the English language.
But did you know he was a successful entrepreneur?
Shakespeare became a shareholder in an acting troupe called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who beat off fierce competition to become the most famous and successful theatre company in the land.
He rose from the ranks of commoners to the status of a gentleman.
And he earned enough money to buy the biggest house in his home town and retire there in comfort with his family.
He came from a very humble background, got married and had children very young for that time. So, HOW did he achieve all this in such a short lifespan (and in between writing all those plays)?
His poem Venus and Adonis was a bestseller in its day and he was more famous as a poet than a dramatist. It appealed to a very narrow, high-end audience: educated Elizabethan gentleman – because you needed to be able to read, be able to afford books and have a classical education.
Innovative Business Models
Shakespeare had already produced several successful plays but turned to poetry when the plague forced London theatres to close. He worked within an established tradition of patronage, whereby a rich and noble patron would reward an artist for producing work in their honour.
This limited Shakespeare’s income and was vulnerable to the patron’s fall from favour, illness or whims.
So, he opened up his audience to appeal to the ‘groundlings’ who paid a penny each to watch in the yard. The Globe Theatre had a 3,000 capacity so those pennies added up. Plus, he up-sold seats in the galleries to the gentlefolk.
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Shakespeare could act, but he was never star of the show and left this to the celebs at the time. He developed a partnership structure in his theatre company which meant he didn’t get distracted and enabled him to focus on his writing whilst experts ran all the other aspects.
Shakespeare’s company was the first in the history of the English theatre where the actors were shareholders, meaning Shakespeare received a share of the profits on every performance by the company.
Content & Delivery
Shakespeare wasn’t protected by copyright law back in his day as it didn’t exist for authors. Bootleggers were always in the audiences trying to memorise and duplicate the scripts to sell on.
But because he delivered live, he got instant feedback and reaction from audiences, so he could continually improve his products.
And he kept generating more and more compelling content to keep people coming back.
Ambition & Spirit
As Shakespeare wrote himself in Julius Caesar, urging us to take control of our dreams:
“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”
It may have been back in Elizabethan times, but lots to reflect on.